After nearly 20 years of trying — and failing — to expand the city's fiber-optic ring to every home and business in the city, Palo Alto leaders are now flirting with a new vision for the underground network: using it to launch a transformed and cutting-edge local utilities system.
The vision, which the City Council endorsed Monday night, calls for expanding the existing 48-mile fiber-optic ring and integrating it with the municipal electric network as well as other city-owned utilities. The fiber system would served as a key component for the Utilities Department's long-planned installation of advanced metering infrastructure (commonly known as "smart meters").
With a smart-meter system, the city anticipates a range of benefits, including providing customers with daily information about their utilities usage, improving electric-meter accuracy, cutting staffing costs by eliminating on-site meter reading, detecting water leaks using strategically placed remote devices, identifying when water or electricity is being stolen through meter tampering, and more.
Utilities staff also believe the fiber ring could help encourage customers to switch from natural gas to carbon-free electricity — and the eventual termination of natural gas service altogether. The fiber-optic ring could also help the city build infrastructure for neighborhood blocks — or even entire neighborhoods — that would facilitate the installation of electric-vehicle chargers, according to staff. And it could fortify the Utilities Department's supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which gather and analyze data in real time to help the utility monitor and regulate its electric, gas and other services.
"For SCADA in particular, fiber is the optimal communication medium because of information security, reliability, transmission speed and bandwidth capacity," a new report from the Information Technology Department states. "The city will be able to provide maximum continuity of electric services to our customers by reducing the number of homes and businesses impacted by outages."
The report also makes the case for leveraging the fiber network to support various Smart City initiatives, including traffic management, smart streetlights and parking garage sensors.
"While potentially adding complexity to the path forward, the recommended approach presents a significant and groundbreaking opportunity to integrate FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) implementation with Palo Alto's other environmental sustainability goals," the report states.
The approach represents a sharp break with how the council has historically viewed the expansion of the fiber network: as a risky but transformative opportunity to bring ultra-high-speed internet to every home and business in the city, with no connection to the city's utilities system. Commonly known as "Fiber to the Home" or "Fiber to the Premises," the effort promised to enable movie streaming, video conferencing, intensive cloud computing and even telemedicine, among other uses.
But despite its tantalizing goals, the project has been under discussion at City Hall for nearly two decades, with little to show aside from a library of obsolete studies.
Palo Alto came closest to accomplishing the initial vision in 2008, when the council struck a deal with a consortium of companies led by Canadian firm Axia Net Media Corporation. The consortium pulled out of the agreement in March 2009, citing "deteriorating" economic conditions and the city's unwillingness to contribute up to $5 million in annual funds for the project.
Some in the community and on council remain hopeful that the vision can still be realized. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who was also on the council in the late 1990s when it began considering expanding its then-new fiber network, noted on Monday that the project has been under consideration for more years than she'd care to admit.
"We have this nice cushion," she said, referring to the fiber ring, which generates about $2 million in annual revenues from the city. "But we've certainly worked a long time to make something happen, especially with Fiber to the Home. ... My goal is really to, at some point in my lifetime, get Fiber to the Home."
Jeff Hoel, a resident who has long advocated for Fiber to the Home, shared her sentiment about wanting to see the fiber expansion. Unlike Kniss, however, Hoel argued that the staff's approach of integrating utilities is a mistake that would, in fact, impede the type of fiber expansion that he and others have long hoped for.
Hoel likened the staff's approach to spending about $15 million without getting anything of value. Some of the uses that staff is proposing — including expanding fiber as part of the undergrounding of local utilities and as part of the effort to get customers to ditch natural gas in favor of electricity — effectively tethers the fiber project to unrelated efforts that could take decades to develop, he argued.
Furthermore, linking the fiber network to smart meters may not make the most sense for a future Fiber to the Premises program.
"If you install fiber that goes where the smart meters are, that doesn't put it where FTTP needs to go," Hoel told the council.
Rather than linking fiber to these projects, the city should finally design a Fiber to the Premises network. If such a system proves too expensive, staff should consider what parts to leave out, he said.
The council, for its part, embraced staff's new utility-focused approach, which in some ways is already being implemented (the city's recently completed "Upgrade Downtown" project, which included replacement of aged gas and water mains, added a fiber conduit on University Avenue).
Councilman Tom DuBois made the motion to support the staff proposal, though he also said he would like to see the city accelerate the future phase, which would bring fiber to businesses and residences. He also cautioned against depleting the city's Fiber Fund — which has about $29 million, mostly in fees collected from commercial users of the fiber service — before the citywide expansion can occur.
The reserve, DuBois said, gives Palo Alto an advantage over other cities that are trying to build fiber networks.
"I want to make sure we keep that money in reserve before we get to the Fiber to the Node/Fiber to the Premises portion of project," DuBois said.
With its vote, the council authorized staff to issue a request for proposals for yet another study — this time with a focus on using fiber in conjunction with smart meters, SCADA systems and wireless communication for city staff. The consulting firm would also create a business plan for a future fiber services, including the Smart City programs, Fiber to the Node (the expansion of the ring into neighborhood hubs) and, ultimately Fiber to the Premises (the "last mile" extension between the node and the home).
As the sole dissenter, Councilman Greg Tanaka criticized the proposed phasing of the fiber expansion, including the creation of the business case for FTTP (staff included that in the third of four phases). Tanaka argued that the business case for the entire system should come first.
"It's like saying, 'Let's start building a house, but before we design the plans for the house, let's start hammering nails to studs.'" Tanaka said. "It seems like we should have plans for the house first."
Others supported the staff's incremental approach, with an initial focus on building out the fiber system for municipal utilities and a future connection to homes and businesses. Mayor Eric Filseth called this proposal "pragmatic," even as he alluded to the typically short shelf life of prior business plans.
"If you build a detailed case for FTTP today, pretty good chance it will be obsolete by the time it comes to actually building it because there's still technology changing," Filseth said.